6 Ways to Embrace Your Love/Hate Relationship With Feedback
December 5, 2018
Early in my career, I found myself head over heels for praise.
There’s nothing like that adrenaline rush of a compliment on your work or the acknowledgement of crushing a major challenge. In the moment, I’d brush it off like it was NBD, but on the inside, I was breaking out that end zone dance like I’d scored the winning Super Bowl touchdown.
As a result of my addiction to praise, I found myself constantly seeking it. I wanted more of those high highs and the easiest way to get them was to ask. I’d solicit feedback from colleagues, friends, and family. I never let an opportunity to receive praise pass me by.
So when I had the opportunity to receive a 360 review at work—a survey soliciting input from my boss, peers, and direct reports—I was ecstatic. It meant I would get all of that praise in writing! I could read and re-read it to my heart's content!
But when my coach shared the report, I was devastated. Sure, there was praise, but I was laser focused on what I saw as an outpouring of criticism.
“Lisa needs to play nicer in the sandbox with other departments.” “She makes more commitments than she can keep.” “I’d like to see her improve her public speaking skills.”
I was crushed. My life coach tried to rationalize with me, but I was too far down the rabbit hole. The critiques played on repeat, and for the next week, every interaction was clouded with accusations and defense mechanisms.
At my wit’s end, my next conversation with my coach was different. I needed a way out of this bottomless pit of rumination. He had me read through the comments again and only write down things I heard more than once. He asked me to confront only what was true; and most importantly, he asked, “What do you want to do about all of this?”
My relationship with feedback has since evolved, and now I teach workshops on it and run 360 reviews for others. I still love feedback, but now I know that we can develop an unhealthy relationship with it. Whether it’s feedback from our boss, our family, our partner, or even that unsolicited feedback from Aunt Jill at family dinners—it’s something that can affect us deeply.
Yes, receiving feedback—both criticism and praise—is essential for growth and to live in the world with other people. Receiving feedback is correlated with higher job satisfaction, more creativity, faster adaptation, and lower turnover. By knowing how we’re perceived, we cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness which is the foundation for stronger relationships, more effective decision making, and greater fulfillment.
But feedback has a shadow side. It can lead us to reject our own truths and values because we fixate on what others think. If every room you walk into is full of noise—where other people’s spoken or unspoken opinions are overpowering—you can’t focus and your own productivity drops. You’re frozen as you find yourself calibrating for other’s views of what’s right and losing sight of yourself.
We often view feedback as black-and-white: it’s either critical to have or it turns you into a people pleaser. But feedback is gray; it’s a tool to gain self-awareness and connection. It’s also not without risk that you’ll find yourself addicted and wanting to please everyone around you.
The trick is to find a healthy balance that allows you to unhook from its grip. Here are six ways to do that:
1. Get Feedback From Your Loving Critics
In her book, Insight, researcher Tasha Eurich suggests soliciting feedback from your loving critics. These are people who care deeply about you, whose opinions you value, and who want you to grow and thrive; as a result, they challenge you, lovingly.
When you ask your loving critics for feedback, do so with intention. Instead of, “Hey, got any feedback for me?” try something like, “I’m trying to grow my presentation skills. Can you offer me some critiques after our client meeting tomorrow?” This tells your loving critic what to be looking for and why it’s important to you.
2. Try to Respond Short
When receiving criticism, we usually jump into defensive mode, explaining why the feedback is all wrong. When it’s praise, we explain it away. This doesn’t allow us to really hear or understand the feedback; it also doesn’t encourage the feedback giver to continue offering feedback.
The next time you receive feedback, try responding short. Thank the other person and ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what they are saying. For example: “Can you give me a few examples of how I dominate conversations?”
If you’re able to stay calm and neutral, you’ll find the nugget of truth and better understand the other person’s perspective. Take the time to find what’s valuable for you within the feedback.
3. Choose and Move On
As you receive feedback, think of yourself as a sorting machine. Notice who the feedback is coming from and what this person’s intent might be. Ask yourself: Why are they giving me this feedback?
If the feedback comes from a loving critic who has your best interests in mind (whether it's professional development, personal growth, etc.), listen up and take it to heart. If it comes unsolicited from someone who hasn’t been trustworthy or reliable in the past, still listen to what the person has to say, but give it a closer look before accepting it as fact.
Also be on the lookout for themes; chances are if you’re hearing the same thing again and again, there may be some truth in it. Process the themes, and then match them against your goals, values, and sense of self. Choose what’s valuable to you in reaching your aims and then discard the rest.
Too often, we find ourselves ruminating on an outlier comment. Once you’ve chosen what’s useful, let the rest go. Write it down and burn it, flush it down the toilet, or rip it to shreds. You have work to do on the feedback you’ve chosen as valid and don’t have time for the rest.
4. Don’t Deflect Praise
While we don’t want to get hooked or dependent on praise, it’s a mistake to minimize it. Think back on the last piece of praise you received. Did you deflect it by saying something like, “Oh, it was no big deal,” or “I just got lucky”?
Being acknowledged for your work and who you are is important. It keeps you motivated and lets you know where you stand. The key here, just as with negative feedback, is not to dwell, not to ruminate. Rather, celebrate the compliment, take in what’s true about it, and then use it to move forward.
5. Give Gold Stars
In her book, Dare to Lead, researcher Brene Brown writes about the transformation from collecting gold star—wanting to be recognized for achievements—to giving gold stars. The best way to unhook from praise and criticism is to stop focusing on yourself.
We become obsessed with what others think and wanting to look good. When we’re able to acknowledge others for their good work, to give the gold stars instead of receiving them, we begin to develop a stronger and more mature relationship with praise.
6. Thought Partner to Understand
Finally, you don’t have to go down the feedback path alone.
If you find yourself ruminating, unable to unhook from criticism or praise, it’s best to work with a coach, therapist, or a trusted friend to sort through it. This person can help you see themes, think through what’s most important to you, and hold you accountable for taking the actions you choose.
Regardless of how you manage your relationship with feedback, I hope you’ll have one. Feedback is a gift of self-awareness, growth, and humanity.
Read next: How to Overcome Your Fear of Feedback